Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Disorderly Property is Dangerous


5th Speech to Networking Toastmasters, 6/3/2013

Good morning, Toastmasters and Honored Guests:
Grants Pass’ top stated goal has long been, “to be a city that looks safe and is safe.”  What’s wrong with that goal?
I’ll tell you what’s wrong; that it’s only a goal.  That our city has been taking no real steps to attain it.
What makes a city look safe?  I submit that it is cleanliness and order: clean streets, well kept properties; no litter; no graffiti.  Order is intimidating to the disorderly and lawless, comforting to the orderly and law abiding.
Weeds, litter and filthy pavements, on the other hand, are encouraging to low life and disturbing to respectable folks.  Disorderly property is worse than bad advertising; it is downright dangerous.  That’s why we have property nuisance codes.
In 1982, James Q. Wilson wrote an article for Atlantic Monthly about the disorder that encourages crime.  He called it, “BrokenWindows.”   It has lent its name to a policing philosophy which holds that, if we take care of disorderly nuisances like broken windows, major crimes will be reduced.  “Take care of the little things,” they say, “and the big things take care of themselves.”  It has worked in New York and Cincinnati; it can work in Grants Pass.
He said that the things that aggravate us the most are not major crimes, which rarely happen to us, but constant nuisances imposed on us by thoughtless others, like barking dogs, litter and weeds—except that Wilson wrote about broken windows, panhandlers and prostitutes, being a city boy.  Nuisance codes were written to keep the peace, by having our public nags, our city police, remind us to love one another so we don’t drive each other nuts.  
Broken windows are several steps down the road to disorder.  Disorder starts with weeds gone to seed, and tree trash left rotting on pavements.  “Seedy” is a word that denotes neglect in property or dress.  Litter soon follows, as people add their ugly to ugliness.  As gangsters get comfortable, they start tagging their territories.  Kids looking for bad fun start breaking windows and entering abandoned buildings, like the Dimmick hospital. 
Disorderly vagrants throw litter around weedy places to see if it gets old, or gets picked up.  Old litter means that a place is safe to camp in; no one cares, and good people stay away.  It marks their territories. 
Ownership is control, and cleanliness also marks territory; the territory of the law abiding and orderly.  The way to take control of your city is to clean it up and keep it clean, and thereby make it look safe, so it will be safe.
Truly, it is kinder to warn one to clean up a bit of litter and a few weeds, than to wait until it ripens into a major safety hazard that is a huge, expensive hassle to clean up!  But the latter is what our city has been doing for some time, and it shows.   
After all, the city makes no money off of warning people to clean up nuisances.  But it can abate safety hazards for 10% over cost.  You see the occasional “notice of violation” sign on selected neglected properties this time of year.  
But since nuisance codes are not enforced, more safety hazards ripen than our code enforcers can harvest. 
Thus we had a forest fire, complete with water drops, right off 7th Street two years ago, that started in the weeds behind Burger King’s lot and roared up a hill into tall pines.
In 2006, short-time-City-Manager David Frasher created a Code Enforcement Office, and forbade police or firemen to enforce our codes.  He apparently read our City Charter, which mandates enforcement of all city ordinances.  It seems that he started Code Enforcement to create the appearance of enforcing city codes while making it the place where property nuisance complaints go to die. 

He soon renamed them “Community Service Officers” or CSOs.  They “serve and protect” property slobs, developers, and bankers, not neighbors.  They enforce city codes only by complaint—and then tell the slobs who complained about their property.  I’ve had a couple of neighbors in my face because of them.
It can be a dangerous job to ask a disorderly person to clean up his property or to complain to police about him.  That’s why nuisance codes must be enforced on sight, and all officers trained to spot violations and warn violators.

Right now, our police are citing people for crimes that they should be jailed for, while being forbidden to cite nuisance code violators.  Please ask the Council and Manager to eliminate the Community Service Code Enforcement Office and train all of our police to use their citation power where it will be most effective, to nag our residents and landowners to obey our nuisance codes.  Then we can really be “a city that looks safe and is safe.”

I have started a petition to do just that.  Please sign it after the meeting.
I yield the floor to the Toastmaster.

Rycke Brown, Natural Gardener    541-955-9040     rycke@gardener.com